a small retrospective
Exhibition organized by Tatiana Istomina
April 5, 2013 through May 11, 2013
Reception: Friday, April 5, 6-8pm
Art Palace is proud to present the first retrospective of Alissa Blumenthal (1899-1995), an important under-appreciated American painter of the 20th-century, whose work has received increasing attention since its rediscovery in 2011. The exhibition is organized by Tatiana Istomina.
Alissa Blumenthal’s essential subject was time: the physical time measured by how long it takes paint to dry or a hand to trace a line across a piece of paper; the biological time of Alissa’s daily existence, registered with obsessive precision in her diaries; the historical time of changing political regimes and art movements in Europe and America; and her special interest – the metaphysical time, declared linear and absolute by some philosophical systems, and circular, changeable or imaginary, by others. Abstract art, right from the moment of its inception in and around 1914, was haunted by a dream of painting at last leaving the realm of convention behind, and attaining the immediacy of seeing and being. The dream of Alissa Blumenthal, whose career started in Europe almost simultaneously with abstract painting’s glorious beginning and ended not long after its proclaimed death in the United States, was to create abstraction that embodies the idea of temporality and defies it.
Alissa Blumenthal was born in Russia in 1899, into the family of a pharmacist. She studied art from 1920 to 1923 at Vitebsk Practical Art School, where Kazimir Malevich was one of the professors, and in 1925 emigrated to the United States to live the rest of her long and spectacularly uneventful life in New York City. During her lifetime, Alissa Blumenthal exhibited only on a few occasions. The first period of her moderate success came in the 1940s, when she had three shows in New York, the last of which received a harsh review from Clement Greenberg. Another brief period of recognition occurred in the 1970s, when the momentum of the Women’s Movement led to increased attention to female artists. By 1980 Alissa Blumenthal slipped back into obscurity; she spent the last fifteen years of her life in near isolation in a small apartment in Brooklyn.
The first retrospective of Alissa Blumenthal’s work features paintings and drawings from three distinct stages of her career. The early stage, which spanned the late 1930s and 1940s, was marked by Alissa’s success in creating an individual style that both alluded to and wrestled with her Constructivist background. In these early painting large segments of canvas are covered with thin and rigid films of color dissected by strips of white background into hard-edge square and rectangular shapes. The power of these paintings is in the haunting imagery produced by the unpredictable drying process of pigments and solvents, as well as the opposition between the amorphous nature of paint and the rigidness of the imposed boundaries. In the second major stage of the artist’s career, which lasted from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s, she began to introduce bright colors and recognizable imagery into her compositions, including numbers and letters. Most of these paintings measure 12 x 12 inches; groups of the identical square canvases create long sequences suggestive of filmstrips. This body of work seems to respond to the new conditions of postwar America and may be considered Alissa’s personal version of Pop art. At the age of sixty she began the third phase of her career represented in this show by small works on paper dating from the late 1960s through early 1980s. The ephemeral pieces that hover uncertainly between painting and drawing combine elements of her earlier works into a new synthesis, rooted in the physical process of mark-making. Alissa’s uneasy relationship with time and with her own physicality made especially poignant by aging, is most manifest in these works, where the ever-present frame is steadily eroded by accumulations of marks and paint.
Alissa Blumenthal made her work in a self-imposed atmosphere of sheltering isolation that was both creatively confining and indispensable to her artistic development. Now that her practice has surfaced in the art world again, it seems appropriate to find a place for it that acknowledges both its similarities and its differences from the canon. Whether we still share the belief in the promise of abstraction as the vehicle of the sublime or dismiss it as one of the many illusions of High Modernism, Alissa Blumenthal’s works remain indelible vestiges of her particular existence and faith in painting.
Tatiana Istomina is an artist, whose practice consists of painting, drawing and video. Many of her projects are constructed around fictional characters, of which Alissa Blumenthal is the most recent as well as the most fully developed. Istomina holds a PhD in geophysics from Yale University (2010) and MFA from Parsons New School (2011). Her works have been shown in the US, Russia and Canada; in 2010 she had a solo show at the Janus Project. She received multiple awards, including the AAF prize for fine arts (2012), and was nominated for a Dedalus foundation fellowship (2010) and the Kandinsky prize (2012). She has completed several artist residencies and is currently a resident at the Core program.